VW Delivers Das Punch Line

He’s old, he’s cantankerous — and he’s carrying a good deal of weight on his slightly stooped back. Charlie “Sluggy” Patterson, as he’s been named, is the fictional character in an online teaser campaign introducing American consumers to Deutsch’s new brand platform for Volkswagen. The marketer is making no small bet that Sluggy, and the punching game he advocates as part of the “Punch Dub” campaign, can help raise awareness of the brand beyond its most iconic nameplate, the Beetle.

The game, Punch Dub, is VW’s reinvention of the classic kids’ road trip game that has passengers punching each other each time they see a VW Beetle. Sluggy, the tough-talking, accidental “inventor” of Punch Dub, explains in the campaign’s first video in the online series that 50 years ago he made it up as an excuse after punching a friend in a face. Since then, he reports, he has punched more than 20,000 neighbors, friends and even celebrities.

VW hopes that people who spot any VW will throw a punch, either virtually — using social media network Facebook — or in real life. (Facebook also offers the chance to win a weekly prize of a six-month car lease and a grand prize of a new VW CC.)

The broadcast campaign kicked off with a 30-second spot in the Super Bowl — an ad that showed a lot of sheet metal in its quest to emphasize the range of styles in VW’s 13-car U.S. lineup. It also featured a range of people playing the game as they spot the passing vehicles, including a boy punching his grandfather, an Amish man hitting the passenger in his horse-drawn carriage, and comedian Tracy Morgan getting punched by Stevie Wonder.

The campaign also introduces a “That” to the “Das Auto” tagline (“That’s Das Auto”).

According to Tim Ellis, vp of marketing at Volkswagen of America, the campaign aims to break VW out of its traditional entry-level, challenger-brand status into a more mainstream leadership position.

But some industry analysts wonder if the fun and games will be enough.

Tobe Berkovitz, professor of advertising at Boston University, asks how Sluggy, “one of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen,” can ever be helpful in building a mass brand. However, he does note that if the Punch Dub game catches on in the real world, it could create a valuable “Pavlovian response” each time someone sees a VW.

Todd Turner, president of consultancy Car Concepts, says the brand also has to differentiate itself in consumers’ minds. “They need to explain what [the brand] means when compared to a Honda or a Kia,” he says.

For the agency, what VW needs is what it already has.

“The reason this is such a coveted brand is that it has a real soul,” says Eric Hirshberg, CEO and CCO of Deutsch/LA, which won the VW business last October after an agency review. “We wanted to return the brand to that soul, but also include more people. Everyone can play Punch Dub …  and it reveals that VW has a model for everyone in the world.”

VW of America CEO Stefan Jacoby has publically outlined aggressive growth goals for the U.S., announcing in August that the company is aiming to sell 800,000 units a year by 2018, an increase of over 260 percent from 2009.

But Wes Brown, a principal at Iceology in Los Angeles, cautions that “the only way you’re going to achieve those numbers is to achieve growth in areas where you normally don’t do well.” And VW marketing, he notes, including the teaser campaign, positions the brand as “hip, cool and trendy, and with that comes style, independence and quirkiness. It’s great positioning, but the average person in the Midwest doesn’t want to believe that’s what [they are] when they go buy a car.”

Ron Lawner, former CEO of Arnold, which handled VW advertising from 1995-2005, thinks “Punch Dub” has potential. “It’s memorable, irreverent, human,” he says. “It’s something only Volkswagen could do.”

See also: “VW’s Tim Ellis on the Deutsch/LA Selection”